In the United Kingdom, the day after Brexit on January 31, the streets were full of British flags. There were opposing sentiments on display. On the one hand, the Brexiteers felt like it was independence day, and on the other, the Remainers saw it as a gloomy day of loss.
In the past three and a half years, the Brexiteers have been withdrawn, after beginning to think that Brexit would never happen after all the parliamentary and social opposition to it. Yet, now they were satisfied and joyful. “I feel more independent today, perhaps I’ll never see it, but it’s good to know that my children and grandchildren will have a better future,” said a man in his fifties celebrating Brexit in a pub.
Next to him was Karl, a London Underground employee about 35 wearing a baseball cap that bore the words “We made the UK great again,” emulating Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. “I like it that Boris [Johnson] wants to introduce a points system for people who want to come to the country,” he said. “I think it was a mistake to give so much freedom to immigrants who want to come here and claim our benefits.”
Their expectations are not great. They just hope for a better country. Yet, Boris Johnson will find it hard to deliver on the promises he has made. “We did it. We have changed the kind of country we live in,” said Nigel Farage, the architect of Brexit, from a stage in Parliament Square just minutes before the exit officially took place.
Resignation and sadness
The euphoria of the Brexiteers contrasted with the resignation and sadness of the Remainers, who in the past few years have tried everything to stop a Brexit that they consider unfair. Their feeling is that things will be a little worse from now on. “I’m devastated,” said Claire, a 42-year-old English nurse who had just got back from a visit to Paris. “I don’t know what will happen, I don’t know what Brexit will be like or whether I’ll be able to go back to Paris without a visa.” Many British people are searching through their family backgrounds with the idea of getting a European passport. More than 350,000 British people have got European passports, above all Irish, but also French and German.
Labour’s Keir Starmer, who is the favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, said: “I will fight to restore freedom of movement in the EU if I am elected.” Starmer, who is a Remainer, was in favour of a second referendum. “We need to make the wider case on immigration,” he said at a leadership event at Westminster Cathedral. “I want people in this country to be able to go and work abroad, in Europe.”
Meanwhile, in Downing Street, Boris Johnson threw a reception with his ministers and advisors to celebrate the independence of the United Kingdom. The menu was made up of British products: savoury shortbread with Shropshire blue cheese, and mini Yorkshire puddings with roast beef and horseradish sauce. To drink there was British wine. Johnson made sure the party was as discreet as possible so as not to annoy the Remainers, who make up at least 48% of the population.
11 months of transition
Despite the Brexit day celebrations, for the moment not much seems to have changed in the country. During the 11 months that the transition period will last, the UK will continue to comply with European regulations without being part of its institutions, in the same way a divorced couple might for a while continue to live together under the same roof and share the bills.
During this time, London and Brussels will have to negotiate agreements on trade, security, and cooperation. They will have to negotiate just about everything. Both parties want an agreement “without tariffs or duties”, in other words without taxes on products and without limits on the number of products. It will not be easy because the European Union knows that any agreement has to respect its basic principles, which include the free movement of people, one of the issues that led to Brexit in the first place.
The agreement with the EU must also be compatible with what was achieved with the Donald Trump executive, an agreement that has generated a lot of controversy in the UK. Johnson wants this transition period to be as short as possible, and in fact has prohibited his government from asking for an extension by law. That means a no-deal Brexit is back on the table. At the same time, the EU says it is impossible to come to an agreement on everything in the time available. Commercial trade in the UK amounts to £1.5 billion, of which 49% is with the EU.
For their part, the Scottish nationalists see Brexit as basically English nationalism in action. At 11pm on January 31, while Eurosceptics celebrated the exit from the EU, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, posted a tweet that said: “Scotland has returned to the heart of Europe as an independent country.” Meanwhile, the First Minister of Wales, Labour’s Mark Drakeford, said: “Wales remains a European nation.”